Alan Cranston Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Democracy, Disarmament, and Public Education: Conversation with Alan Cranston, former U.S. Senator from California; 4/17/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Senator Cranston, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you. Delighted to be with you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Palo Alto, raised in Los Altos, and went to Stanford. So, what I'm doing here in Berkeley, I don't know!

We'll make an exception because of your distinguished career. Alan Cranston at age 10 What were the most important things you learned from your parents?

One of the most important things was that they adopted the position fairly early on to give me advice but then leave the decision making to me, which helped develop my initiative and independence.

What books did you read as a young person that influenced you?

I loved all the Mark Twain books, read every one of them. Read most of Dickens' books. When I was at Pomona College one book I loved was a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. And then I began to read about world events. Carl Sandburg's Life of Lincoln, the biographies of many presidents and senators, and governors of California. A lot of California history. Of course, before that I read Peter Rabbit and kids' books.

That's right. And early on, partly as a result of the circle of friends that your father had, you put your eye to wanting to be a journalist, right?

Yes, I got very interested in journalism. One of my father's closest friends was a remarkable early Western pioneer journalist, Fremont Older, who edited the Call Bulletin and other newspapers in Cranston at Stanford University the Bay Area. He was a great crusader on issues and that helped me see the connection between journalism and the issues of our time.

You graduated then from Stanford in what year?


So the world was about to enter a very dark period, and you must have been reading about events in Europe. What did you do about that?

First of all, I grew up during the Depression and my father had his problems during the Depression, and I saw how government, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, could intervene and provide hope and leadership, and saw some of the problems that were facing people. As that receded a little bit, along came Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and the Japanese warlords. And when I was at Stanford I watched the League of Nations fail to cope with the invasion of Ethiopia by Benito Mussolini's fascist troops, and I became very concerned about the fact that we didn't have an effective world organization to deal with such people. The idea of being a foreign correspondent and wandering the world and witnessing great events, having adventures and covering the activities of world leaders, appealed to me greatly. It was a very glamorous life in those days. And I decided that was for me, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I managed to become one, and did that in Europe for two years.

You were in Germany, you were stationed in Italy, and then you also covered the war in Ethiopia.

Yes. I didn't cover the actual war, I covered the aftermath. But that war never ended. I was there for four months, the first non-fascist, non-Nazi, journalist allowed into the country. I was working then for an international news service, which was the Hearst wire service. I got into Ethiopia, spent four months there traveling all over the place, heard shooting every single night. They just never did pacify the country.

Meanwhile I lived in Rome for about two years, saw Benito Mussolini at a little distance a number of times, covered some of his deeds. Saw Adolph Hitler up in Germany, got very close to him one night in the streets of Munich, got a real good look at him. I became very concerned about what the fascists and Nazis were up to in the world.

It was a very exciting life. I was also in London at the time of the Munich appeasement, saw Neville Chamberlain come back with a piece of paper that was supposed to mean peace in our time. I became very concerned about American isolationism, the fact that there were many Americans wanting to have nothing to do with what was happening in the rest of the world, as if it wasn't going to impact on us sooner or later. So after doing this for a while, I decided this wasn't the life for me after all. I didn't want to spend my life writing about such evil people and their terrible deeds; I'd rather be involved in the action. So I decided to quit journalism, return to America, and hoped eventually I could get into politics and government if I could figure out how to do it.

Before we get into that, I'm curious, because when you're doing what you just described you're a pretty young man here. Where did you get the courage, the go-to-it mentality? Was that because you were a son of California? Or you didn't know better? You were doing all these things at such a young age.

Maybe I didn't know better; maybe I knew that you had to deal with these issues. But I think part of it came from the self-reliance that was inculcated in me by my parents and what I mentioned a bit ago, the fact that they would give me advice, do this or don't do that, but then they'd leave it to me to make the decision. That began before I was twenty.

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